The BBC provided an excellent example over the festive period as to why the public should be deeply suspicious of mainstream media output on health and science. On Boxing Day it ran a story under the headline “Life choices 'behind more than four in 10 cancers'” and followed it on January 2nd with an article telling us that “Most cancer types 'just bad luck'“ .
Those two apparently contradictory headlines suggest scientific disagreement with respect to the causes of cancer but they are not necessarily conflicting and thanks in no small part to BBC spin, it is probable that many people will not fully appreciate the significance of the second article, or its implications for the credibility of public health strategy.
The Boxing Day piece appeared as headline BBC Health news but contained absolutely no news at all. It was a regurgitated press release from CRUK that referenced a 2011 literature review produced by Max Parkin, a medic turned epidemiologist who spent much of his career working for the scientifically non-league but politically premier division WHO. It was published in a journal produced by CRUK.
There is nothing technically wrong with what Parkin produced but any scientist worth the name would question the reliability of the data he used and his report’s dependence on dubious epidemiology bedevilled by both author and publication bias.
Mercifully, the BBC did not reproduce the whole nauseating press release in which CEO Harpal Kumar urges the government to introduce “standardised packaging for cigarettes without delay” and Linda Bauld tells us that she wants to make sure that “the public and the policy-makers know the evidence behind the benefits of these lifestyle changes is solid”. There is a big difference between Bauld’s stated objective and the much nobler one of actually providing solid scientific evidence, but I am sure that a public health disciple with a degree in politics will not let mere scientific credibility stand in her way.
It is hard to fathom why the allegedly quality conscious BBC chose to publish this low grade political posturing as news but Chris Snowdon may have intuited why the political wing of CRUK pushed its neo-puritan agenda just a week before the veracity of its message was to some extent challenged by a more scientifically rigorous paper published in the prestigious independent journal Science.
The paper by oncologist Bert Vogelstein and biostatistician Cristian Tomasetti demonstrates a strong correlation between the lifetime risk of developing many cancers and the number of times that healthy stem cells divide within tissues, a process that occurs routinely throughout our lives. It suggests that the majority of cancer risk can be attributed to random mutations during these routine cell divisions with environmental lifestyle and hereditary factors combined being accountable for only a third of the variation in cancer risk.
The author’s consider their findings quite important because whilst they acknowledge that primary prevention (such as vaccines and lifestyle changes) can have a significant impact on the incidence of some cancers, a better approach for the majority of cancers might be to focus on early detection and treatment. They do not seek to undermine the efforts of others but recent history has taught us that adherents to public health ideology are easily threatened by even mildly dissenting voices arguing in favour of science and reason, so it is not impossible to imagine that the CRUK press office’s evident influence at the BBC was used to limit damage and massage public opinion.
I invite readers to compare and contrast the two BBC articles that I link to above. The Boxing Day article is a shameless PR piece in which absolutely no effort is made to balance dubious CRUK claims. The January 2nd article by James Gallagher - who in my view is normally one of the BBC’s better journalists - covers Tomasetti’s Science publication reasonably well but distracts from its findings by repeatedly referencing CRUK opinion on lifestyle and cancer. A link is provided to the CRUK website, a CRUK spin doctor is quoted at length and we are unnecessarily informed that CRUK research claims that “more than four in 10 of the total number of cancers were down to lifestyle.”
The article gives the impression of having been co-written or at least clumsily influenced by either an incompetent CRUK scribe or a heavy handed BBC editor.
Early on, in a worryingly patronising, moralistic section we are incorrectly told that:
“The study shows that two thirds of cancer types are simply chance. But the remaining third are still heavily influenced by the choices we make. Too much booze, time in the sun or being overweight mean... “But later we read that:
“The remaining third of cancer types, which are affected by lifestyle factors, viruses or a heightened family risk…”The two statements are somewhat contradictory and further add to schizophrenic nature of an article that is ostensibly about a US research paper but which relentlessly plugs the views of UK based public health activists.
It is unsurprising that UK public are confused and ill-informed about the relationship between lifestyle and health when the dominant and supposedly independent national broadcaster appears to be incapable of reporting health news without extensive input and interference from favoured pressure groups.
I would greatly prefer a BBC that understands the full implications of what it reports, embraces investigative journalism and starts asking public health spin doctors some serious questions. Even if the unlikely claim that over 40% of cancers are lifestyle related were true, forcing everyone to adopt “healthy lifestyles” would not reduce the overall incidence of cancer by 40%. If Tomasetti is correct, social engineering might reduce the incidence of some forms of cancer but other forms would increase in relative importance because by far the greatest overall risk factor for any individual is age. Outside the alternative reality enjoyed by journalists, people who for example avoid bowel cancer through lifestyle change do not live forever and do not necessarily enjoy good health as a consequence.
It is in everyone’s interest, including the BBCs to see an end to partisan, dumbed down, slogan laden junk journalism posing as health news. It isn’t difficult to report science accurately, but it does require properly educated journalists with enquiring minds and editors who can see beyond the limited horizons of their politically correct media chums.